Summer’s Forgotten Holiday

NOTE: I will be on vacation from July 27th – August 10th and will likely take the next two weeks off from blogging.  In fact, since I will be celebrating my 10-year anniversary during that time, let’s go ahead and say I will be taking two weeks off from blogging!

Each summer, nearer to the end than the beginning, comes the Jewish holiday of Tisha Be’Av (I am not providing a link because I will be defining and explaining below).  This tends to be one of the least-acknowledged and commemorated holidays, unless you are summering at a Jewish summer camp.  There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which, I am sure is that it is both a profoundly sad day and brings with it all the prohibitions of Yom Kippur, but with a longer and hotter day.

So in the spirit of encouraging exploration of this fascinating day on the Jewish calendar, I would like to provide you with some background and some suggested family activities that may, perhaps, allow you a way into summer’s forgotten holiday.  [I’ve adapted this material from a summer camp curriculum I wrote a few years ago.]

Tisha Be’Av – The Ninth of Av

The ninth of the Hebrew month Av is a major fast day in the Jewish calendar, when we lament the date of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, with the subsequent loss of national sovereignty and exile from the Holy Land.  Tisha Be’Av is the culmination of a three week period of mourning, the last nine days of which are particularly intense, with observance of many customs similar to those practiced after a bereavement in the close family.  The “Three Weeks” begin on the seventeenth of Tammuz, the date on which the outer walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached during a Roman siege.  This is also the date which the Midrash claims Moses broke the first tablets of the Law when he came down from Mt. Sinai to find the people worshipping the Golden Calf.

On this day, the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., and the Romans burned the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  This date marks as well the day on which the Jews of England were expelled from that country in 1290.  The greatest catastrophe of medieval Jewish history, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, occurred on the ninth of Av in 1492.  It is also the date which marked the beginning of the Nazi deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto…

The day is marked publicly in the State of Israel by the closure of restaurants, places of entertainment, etc., from the previous evening, with food shops open only for morning hours.  The day is interpreted through its religious significance and/or its importance in connection with nationhood and national sovereignty-whether or not individuals choose to fast.

Traditional observance included the reading of Book of Lamentations, a 25 hour fast, deprivation of comfort and physical contact.  In Jerusalem, thousands of people stream towards the Kotel, the Western and only remaining Wall of the Second Temple to commemorate the destruction and pray for redemption.


Religious Observance

Tisha Be’Av is marked by strict mourning practices and the reading of the Book of Lamentations.  It is preceded by a meal called the seudah ha-mafseket (“the meal that interrupts”- that is, differentiates between a regular day and the fast day).  It is usually a modest meal.  Some people eat food that is customarily provided for mourners – hard-boiled eggs and lentils.

During Tisha Be’Av, as on Yom Kippur, the following are forbidden: eating, drinking, bathing, anointing with oil/perfume, wearing leather shoes, and sexual intercourse.  Unique to Tisha Be’Av is a prohibition against the study of Torah, since studying Torah is a joyous activity.  All that is permitted to be studied is the Book of Job, the parts of Jeremiah that describe the destruction of Jerusalem, and the sections of Talmud that deal with the destruction as well.  Even though work is not forbidden, we are encouraged by the tradition to minimize the amount of work we do this day.

The synagogue service begins after sundown with ma’ariv (the evening service), followed by the reading of the Book of Lamentations (Eicha).  It is customary to sit on the floor or on low benches during the reading, which is again similar to mourning customs.  Only a few lights or candles are left on in the synagogue.  The ark curtain (parokhet) is removed.  The ma’ariv service is recited in hushed tones and Lamentations is chanted to its own special melody.  At the end of Lamentations, the next-to-last verse is repeated by everyone so that the book will end on a hopeful note: “Turn to us, O God, and we shall be turned, renew our days as of old.”  Following Lamentations, a series of piyyutim-liturgical poems-are recited.  These prayers, known as kinot, describe the destruction of the Temple and the sins of the Jewish people.

While many people do not wear shoes all day long on Tisha Be’Av, others refrain from doing so only during services.  The next morning, tallit and tefillin are not worn.  This is another sign of mourning, because a mourner before the funeral does not put on tallit and tefillin.  The Torah is read, and the congregants sit on the floor and recite kinot.  The haftarah is from Jeremiah 8:13-9:23 and is chanted to the tune of Lamentations (except the last two verse, which are to the regular haftarah melody).  At mincha (afternoon service), tallit and tefillin are worn and the Torah is read again.  At the end of Tisha Be’Av, some people recite poetry by the medieval poet Yehuda Halevi which speaks eloquently about Israel and the Diaspora.

Extract from Lamentations:

In blazing anger God has cut down all

the might of Israel;

God has withdrawn God’s right hand in the

presence of the foe;

God had ravaged Jacob like flaming fire;

consuming on all sides.

Lamentations 2:3


Extracts from Yehuda Halevi

O beautiful one, joy of the universe,

City of the great King

For you, my soul has longed

From the furthest corner of the West.


My heart is in the East,

And I am at the farthest end of the West,

How can I taste,

How can anything in life be sweet?


Tisha Be’Av Values Clarification

Choose one of the following statements and answer the following questions:

  1. Since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, we have no reason to commemorate Tisha Be’Av…the Jewish State has been restored.
  2. It is important to use this day to remember the events which occurred in history on Tisha Be’Av, and the suffering of our ancestors.
  3. Isaiah 40:24
  4. Lamentations 2:3
  5. With the establishment of Yom Ha’Shoah as another communal day of grief and mourning, Tisha Be’Av is no longer needed.
  6. The destruction of the Temple was a blessing in disguise because it allowed Judaism to mature beyond sacrifice into prayer.
  7. A statement which summarizes the laws of Tisha Be’Av.

a)     Why did you choose this statement?

b)    Put this statement into your own words.

c)     Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

d)    How does this statement relate to Tisha Be’Av?

e)     What lessons can one learn from your statement?

f)     Describe one way in which the statement you chose explains your personal                           connection to Tisha Be’Av?

g)    Can you identify one new observance of Tisha Be’Av that you would be willing to                 experiment with this year?  Which would it be and why?


A poem on behalf of those struggling to make sense…

It is storming outside.

And for too many I know and care about this week, it has been storming inside as well.

So I offer for those of faith who cannot make sense of what life is presently delivering a poem.  I find that there are moments when prose simply will not do.

The following poem is unpublished and was written by Elisa Ewoldt, a close friend for nearly 25 years.  She captures the struggling soul in a way I find both startling and oddly comforting.  May it bring comfort to those who seek it.


I’m trying to move you out,

I’m needing to kick you out,

Create some additional space,

Free up some room in my mind for matters more consequential,

More substantial…

But I lie.

You are substance and consequence

You are a virus colonized in my heart my mind my lungs my glands

And there is no medium that can push you out.

I cannot speak fast enough,

I cannot write fast enough,

I cannot type fast enough,

I cannot beat you to the punch line or understand the stand up routine you perform.

And all the things I think I Know become things I only thought I knew

And all the things I think are Truth become things I tell myself in order to get through.

I am not at home here with you

I am not at home when you are in residence inside my intimate thoughts.

My home becomes a stage for execution with you presiding.

My brain seizes, I try to find something, anything, to grapple with that is not you

I create miscellaneous misanthropic beliefs and assign them to you

I decide what you believe and I attribute to you all brands of larceny.

You are not this colony in my mind. You are a wayside attraction, the largest ball of string, a museum above a highway, an unmarked detour on unmarked roads.

You cannot be this to me.

But you are.

And it is a terrible, beautiful, glorious travesty

Coming Attractions

Where did summer go?!

For many of you, it is still going strong, and to be honest when I consider that I haven’t worn socks since the last day of school, my summer is still going as well.  But despite the summery feelings all abound, for those of us in schools…you can kind of feel the tug of the upcoming school year becoming noticeable.  Partially due to our early (relative to the rest of the country) start…let’s just say “Back to School” isn’t just a tag-line for sales, it’s very much a’coming!

So, in the heart of July, perhaps with the midpoint of summer vacation upon us, I thought I’d take a moment and tease some of the coming attractions that will make next year, our best year yet!  Cue the bullet points!

  • We have now done more than create the postcard.  All of our K-5 General Studies Teachers attended a week-long training in June for the purpose of beginning to transition our students from our traditional math curriculum to Singapore Math.  It just so happened to coincide with my family trip to Las Vegas, so the time zone allowed me to receive all sorts of emails and texts from our teachers during their training.  It is a very exciting program and offers our students a wonderful opportunity to learn Math “as a second language”.  You can look forward to Parent Information Nights, additional professional development sessions for teachers, “Not your mother’s math homework anymore” conversations, and most importantly – students who develop amazing critical thinking skills in mathematics.
  • We did it!  We have finally created our own mascot – signaling our official entry into the world of Middle School Athletics!  Thanks to Coach Goldman for motivating our students and making the arrangements.  We look forward to at least two or three sports launching next year to compete against local schools. T-Shirts and other swag will be available for purchase next year with all proceeds going to support our new teams.  Whether you are a player, a parent or just an MJGDS booster – be sure to show your support for the Marlins next year!
  • Enrollment for our new, enhanced Kindergarten Enrichment Program is beginning – as it dawns on parents that school is coming – to come in.  We are very excited to be able to offer for the same fee as last year an enriched program for our Kindergartners from 1:45 – 3:45 PM.  Under the direction of Mrs. Kristi O’Neill, our Kindergartners will have an opportunity for free play, snack, homework assistance, socialization and a special enrichment project.  Parents can sign up for the entire year or for whatever makes sense for your schedules.  We expect this class to take off once we get started , but you don’t have to wait.  Please contact the School Office with questions or to sign up.

  • This one is just a teaser (we’ll see who’s paying attention!)…but our school is working behind the scenes with national foundations, grant-makers, day school networks, etc., with the goal of announcing our hosting of a 21st Century Learning Conference next year here at our own school!  Stay tuned!
  • Our year will culminate, of course, in a once-in-a-generation celebration of our school’s 50th Anniversary!  Blogs, announcements, committees, advertisements, etc., are all in the planning stages to ensure this event is everything our school and community deserve it to be.  If you are interested in being involved (in any way!), please let us know.  In the meanwhile, save the date for the weekend of May 4 – 6 as we celebrate the excellent 50 years that have been and prepare for the next trailblazing 50 years to come.
Wow.  We’ve got a lot of excitement to come next year!  Still sad about summer ending?

I’m off to New York City on Monday morning for a Schechter Day School Network Board Retreat.  (I’ll be back Monday night – a nice perk of East Coast living!)  I think I will turn my attention next week to discussing all matters Schechter.  It has been a very interesting year and the Network has some exciting plans of its own…


An “Academy” Approach to Jewish Education

Transparency & Collaboration.

[No, it’s not the name of the next buddy cop or lawyer series with a summer premiere on TNT, TBS or USA.  Although I’d probably watch it!  “Coming this summer on TNT, he’s a wisecracking lawyer looking for a second chance; she’s a divorced mother of three looking to get back in the game – together they are cleaning up this town one case at a time: ‘Transparency & Collaboration’.  Mondays at 9.”]

If I had to sum up our educational philosophy in just two words, it would be difficult to find two better words than those.  I have written at length about both concepts in prior posts (you can check here, here and here for good examples).  They encompass almost each facet of how we go about the business of teaching and learning.  Whether we are talking classroom pedagogy or stakeholder communication; professional development or parent partnerships; student motivation or governance – it is difficult to imagine any component of schooling not improving with greater transparency and collaboration.  We worked extremely hard last year to move down the path towards greater transparency and collaboration.  The data we collected (surveys, testing, etc.) indicate significantly positive results.  We took a step – we have many more steps to take.  We are spending our summer preparing those next steps and I will blog about the new initiatives and programs to be undertaken next school year in the 50th anniversary year of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  But let’s readjust our focus back a few degrees to the macro.  For transparency and collaboration cannot be hypocritically or artificially bound to the physical separation between school, shul and community.  In order to gain the maximum leverage of human, physical and financial resources to provide the highest degree of excellence, it is useful to begin thinking about an “academy” approach to Jewish education.  And we have.

Some background may prove useful to readers less familiar with our present model. (MJGDS stakeholders feel free to skip to the next paragraph!)  Our day school is in the minority of Solomon Schechter Day Schools owned and operated by Conservative synagogues.  (Fun fact: I’ve now headed two of them!)  Our school is owned and operated by the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  Like many synagogues, the Jacksonville Jewish Center operates a preschool (the JJC Preschool), a religious school (the Bernard & Alice Selevan Religious School), a [supplemental] high school (Makom), youth groups (USY) and even a summer day camp (Camp Ki Tov).  Add the day school to the mix and you can see the extraordinary size and scope of educational programming currently in operation at the synagogue!

Having spent a year, I can say that we operate with a high degree of collegiality.  The clergy,  professionals and staff who work at the Center interact with respect and, when circumstance dictates, work together well.  However, there is a big difference between collegiality and collaboration.  “Collegiality” is an attitude; “Collaboration” is an approach.  It is the difference between getting along with each other and realizing that you can’t get anywhere without each other.  It is the difference between separate schools, camps and programs and an academy.

Over the next year, the lay leaders, professionals and clergy of the Jacksonville Jewish Center will be working together as a task force to create a vision to bring our formal and informal educational programs together into what we are calling the “academy”.  It is a vision that calls for the tearing down of boundaries between our schools and programs in order to foster excellence in all.  It is a vision that acknowledges that the Preschool can learn from the Day School and the Day School can learn from the Religious School and the Religious School can learn from USY.  It is a vision that realizes that we are invested in each other’s success.  It is a vision that has the courage to acknowledge that there are many paths in Jewish education and that our task is not to decide for a family which the right one(s) are, but to provide excellence in each for the good of our children and our community.

I am honored to be the professional charged with the task of guiding the task force in its work during the upcoming 2011-2012 school year.  (I will be working with Mauri Mizrahi, the Center’s Vice President of Education, as the lay leader for the task force.)  Our ambitious goal is for the academy to launch in the 2012-2013 school year.  We are spending the summer reading books and articles on educational vision, team-building, Jewish education and the Jewish community so we can begin our work together with a shared vocabulary.  For the sake of transparency, we may create some kind of an “Academy Blog” as a means of communicating the work of the task force with greater detail to its stakeholders than I would choose to share to this blog’s audience…or not. We’ll have to see as we move forward.

It is a very exciting process.  Some of the advantages to operating in this mode are self-evident.  But there will surely be many fascinating questions raised.  You may be thinking about some of them right now.  In future blog posts (here or elsewhere), I will try to address them.  But let me address two right away:

1)  Our school took a wonderful step last year.  But it is just one step on a long journey. The work of the task force will not come on the back of my primary task, being Head of the Martin J. Gottleib Day School.  I will have to carve out the time somewhere else and I will.

2) Positioning the MJGDS within an “academy” at the Jacksonville Jewish Center does not impact its JJC-centricity.  The school has been owned and operated by the Center for 49 years – its ability to be a loving and welcoming place for all families regardless of affiliation has always been important and will continue to be important moving forward. Being part of an academy doesn’t make the school any more connected to the Center than it already is.  It simply (overly-simply) opens up the school to even more resources and excellence already in play.  As one example…if the Center’s USY chapter has excellence in team-building (and it does) we ought to employ those resources in our Middle School where team-building is paramount.  It really is no different than the value-added of having the Center’s clergy play the important role in our school that they already do.  We are simply extending the idea as far as it can fly for maximum benefit.

I look forward to sharing more with you as we begin our work.  There are some similar models already in existence (Pressman Academy in Los Angeles for one), but not many. I’d love to hear from someone in a community operating with something similar, so feel free and send me a comment or a tweet.  In the meanwhile, if you have any questions about the “academy”…please feel free and ask!


You Can Go Home Again

Forgive the brevity (for me)…

We got back late last night from a week-long vacation in Las Vegas and we are moving rental homes first thing Monday morning.  Between catching up at school and prepping for the move…

It was our first trip back to Las Vegas, our most recent home, after almost an entire full year here in Jacksonville, our new home.  As the plane was descending into Las Vegas, I was reminded of one those “only in Vegas” phenomena that I was finally on the right side of.  Living in Las Vegas and traveling for work was a singularly annoying activity because only in Las Vegas does everyone applaud when the plane lands.  You are simply returning home to your workaday life, but you are surrounded by people filled with desperate longing for the vacation of a lifetime.  Cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Miami are fascinating to work in because people move there to be on permanent vacation – there is a different mindset and a different energy.  Anyhoo, last week, at least, we were happily clapping along with the rest of the vacationers.

I have written a lot (for 11 months of weekly blog posts) about my personal Jewish journey, but very little about my professional Jewish journey.  That hasn’t been for any reason other than I don’t expect there is much interest in my prior stops for my present, primary audience – stakeholders for the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  As I have eased my way into the blogosphere, I have felt more comfortable occasionally blurring the lines between the personal and the professional, although always cognizant that this is a professional blog.  I try to write in my own voice and with my own particular sense of humor.  I try to share the things that I am thinking about and, thus, make my private process public.  And sometimes I share something personal when I am so moved because that’s how I understand the meaning of authenticity.  Consider me so moved (and so jet-lagged).

This was, as I have said, my first trip back to Las Vegas since we moved to Jacksonville last summer.  In addition to having an opportunity to visit my parents, it was our first opportunity to return to the school I had the honor of helping create as its founding head. Almost six years ago, with a two-week old daughter in tow, we landed in Las Vegas to begin what turned out to be an extraordinary five-year adventure in almost every sense of the world.  There is little doubt that when, years later, I revisit the twists and turns of my professional career, my five years as founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas will stand out as uniquely fork-turning.


This is not a picture from my Bar Mitzvah – it is from my second year in Las Vegas during Simchat Torah.  Ah…how young we all were once!

It was wonderful to have an opportunity to visit my former school and even though school was already out, we got to see teachers, parents, and many friends on our trip. Maytal, our three year-old, didn’t really recognize her teachers from last year, but Eliana, our almost-six year-old, got to visit with almost all the teachers she had had from eighteen months on.  It was very intense walking through the doors of a place you had spent so much time and energy, but no longer belong to.  Part of me felt like I had never left; part of me felt like I had never been.  A colleague put it in perspective by reminding me that although the past year changed everything for me, for those still there…

By my third year, I used to tell the story of how during my first year, when we gathered as a school we took up less than one row of the Main Sanctuary.  14 First & Second Graders. By my fourth year…

…our first graduating class – almost as many students as we had to begin with.

The full story of that school’s creation is one that I am more than just personally interested in; it is the subject of my doctoral dissertation.  I am heading round the final turn entering my ninth (!) and final year as a doctoral student in the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Trying to write a doctoral dissertation while founding a new school, raising two young daughters, and then relocating cross-country for an amazing job opportunity is probably not the textbook move, but life rarely goes according to plan.  I mention all of this because the story of my time in Las Vegas and the (professional) lessons to be learned from it is nearly written and will be available in one form or another for those interested sooner than later.  I’ll have more to say as publication looms closer.

In the meanwhile, it was good to know that Las Vegas will continue to be a home of sorts for our family.  It was good to see my parents.  It was wonderful to see our old friends.  It was fun to be back in Las Vegas.  It was dangerous to eat so much kosher meat.  It was satisfying to see the school I helped found doing so well under the tried and true stewardship of others.  We will surely be back for future visits.  But as our plane descended last night into Jacksonville, I must say that, in my mind, I quietly applauded.

It is good to be home.


Self-Evaluation – The Ultimate Transparency

We had our final meeting of teachers and staff this morning to officially wrap up the 2010-2011 school year!  Woo-hoo!  School’s out…for summer!

But before we turn the page entirely on the year that was AND before we share some of the “Coming Attractions” for 2011-2012 (an upcoming, post-vacation blog post!), I thought I would take a final stab at transparency and share a reflection of how I thought I did this year in my first year as Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  [I reflected last week (here) about my adventures in 21st century learning this past year, but that is only one aspect of my role as head of school.]  What follows are actual excerpts from the self-evaluation I wrote and submitted to my “Head Support & Evaluation Subcommittee” as part of my overall evaluative process.  We have asked all of our teachers to post reflections of their years on our (closed) ning as part of promoting the value of shared reflection.  I want to do my part by sharing excerpts of my reflection for y’all (did that sound authentically southern enough?  It has almost been a year!):

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Students”:

I think in this area we took a number of important first steps this year.  We created academic standards for each grade and subject by Winter Break and were able to disseminate benchmarks as part of the Admissions Process.  We created and disseminated a variety of survey instruments, failing only to send out and score an “Alumni Survey” for this year’s freshman class.

We have also taken great strides in our outreach to special needs families and in our current practice in putting together processes for dealing with the mechanics of delivering services.  We take it as a positive sign that KoleinuJax has gifted us (in collaboration with Jewish Family & Community Services and the Jewish Community Foundation of Northeast Florida) the monies necessary to expand our program next year by allowing us to hire and train additional support staff in classes where we have children with special needs.

One additional area I would like to improve upon for next year is my own personal investment in teaching and establishing relationships with students.  I taught First Grade Tefillah once a week this year; I may expand upon that next year.  I taught MS Tefillah once a week this year; I may seek to find additional opportunities to teach in the MS as well.  I take it as a positive sign that students have been sending me letters, emails and making appointments to meet with me when they have questions and concerns, but I would like to do a better job next year of working on developing meaningful relationships with my students.  It is a time management challenge (what isn’t!), but one worth solving.

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Faculty”:

I think I have successfully implemented an evaluative process that has not been active in some number of years.  I believe we have created an environment where teachers have reached the higher bar we have mutually set.

My takeaway from the survey data from the faculty is that I have room for growth in providing more regular positive feedback.  I do not compliment as often as I would like to and because I am not shy about providing critique, it can create an imbalance.  My experience is that in time as we all get to know each other better it becomes less and less of an issue, but that does not mean I shouldn’t try harder to provide positive reinforcement.  Next year, I want to put up a bulletin board in the faculty room where we share positive thoughts with each other and then make it a personal goal to put one up a day.  That will create good habits.

I also want to make more of an effort to spend more time developing personal relationships.  It is so hard to find the time, but if I am serious about creating a family atmosphere it will be necessary.

We did a good job of providing professional development to our Jewish Studies Faculty.  We have provided more opportunities for teachers to teach each other during our Faculty Meetings which are now hosted by a different teacher each month in her classroom and has a theme.  I would like next year to try to send a few more teachers out to receive subject matter expertise that they can bring back – for example, Judy Reppert could attend a seminar and then lead a faculty meeting and share what she learned.  I would like our MS Faculty to serve more as “department chairs” for the Lower School in their areas of expertise.

Jon’s Self-Evaluation “Parents”:

Teaching “Parent University” and establishing a blog were two big goals for this year.  It takes a lot of time to keep up the weekly blogs and to prepare and teach the class, but it is worth it and then some.  The twice-yearly face-to-face meetings with parents yielded vital information and hopefully positively contributed to retention.

I also think I’ll be able next year to expand my reach into Shabbat and holiday programming which will better foster the school-shul relationship and the kinds of meaningful carryover we are all looking for.

I think, similarly to faculty, I could do a better job with volunteer recognition and appreciation.  I need to take the extra step to ensure that people feel appreciated for the volunteering they do.  I try hard now, but I think I can grow in making sure people feel they have my full attention whenever we are speaking.  My mind races a million miles an hour, but I don’t ever want a parent to feel that I am not keenly interested in their issue at the moment we are speaking.


So…that’s that!  I hope having an opportunity to peek inside my process from time to time is useful; it is for me!

I told the teachers this morning that I am typically as excited about summer vacation as they are…but honestly?  I am so enthusiastic about what is planned for next year that I almost wish we could skip to Pre-Planning…



A (School) Year in the Life…

Forty-one posts later…

…I have spent some time rereading the titles of the forty-one blog posts I have written this year and cherry-picked a few to reread so that I would have some sense of how to tie up in a neat bow my adventure in blogging this year.  Rather than regurgitate that which you are welcome to reread yourself, I though I would share an illustrative anecdote that took place last week:

I received an email a few weeks ago from the head of a community day school in the Midwest asking if I would be willing to Skype with her and her technology teacher about how our school began its path towards 21st Century Learning.  I went through some of my prior blog posts, did a little searching on Twitter, reviewed a chapter or two in Curriculum 21 and scheduled the call.  We had a lovely hour-long chat on Skype – during which I had occasion to reference, among other things, blogfolios, digital farms, back-channels, digital immigrants, nings, wikis and GoogleDocs.  It was a very nice call and I look forward to continued collaboration with our new friends.

When it comes to reflecting on my own work and having that reflection made transparent – one raison d’être for having a blog in the first place – my big takeaway from this school year that was, is that prior to July of last summer, I would have been utterly unable to define any of the words highlighted in red let alone speak of them intelligently. The idea that during the course of one school year, I have come from almost utter ignorance to presenting at conferences and fielding requests for consultation is almost preposterous.  And yet here we are…

There is nothing unique about me that allowed for this to happen.  I promise.  It took a village (and a book) to teach me basic skills and the (peer) pressure of trying to live up to the expectations already put in place by the school I had been hired to head.  I kinda had no choice, but to begin blogging and Tweeting or else I’d be left behind my own teachers!

My story is really the story of the last two years of our school writ small.  There was nothing particularly unique about our school that would have led you to conclude that it would one day stake out a leadership position in 21st century education.  We were, and are, a relatively small K-8 Solomon Schechter Day School in the relatively small Jewish community of Jacksonville, Florida.  And yet here we are…

It doesn’t take millions of dollars and it doesn’t take a surfeit of faculty.  It doesn’t require expertise in advance and it doesn’t require knowing the end of the journey before you take the first step.  You don’t need SMART Boards, iPads, and laptops to adopt a 21st century mindset.  It is not about the “stuff” (not that the “stuff” doesn’t help…it does)!

We have tried in our school to stop using “21st Century Technology” as a synonym for “21st Century Learning”.  Technology requires “stuff”; Learning requires “people”.  It isn’t that the technology is unimportant – there are certain minimum thresholds of technology necessary to walk the path.  But most schools can reach that threshold with creative budgeting and fundraising.  Harder than accumulating the stuff is changing the paradigm.  It doesn’t take an endowment to revolutionize your educational philosophy – it takes teachers, administrators, parents and students.  And every school has those.


We have exciting plans here at the school for this summer and the year to come.  I look forward to planting those seeds next week.  As I prepare to turn the page on this school year and begin writing the chapter on the next, let me pause to thank those who read this blog and even more those who comment.  I am frequently challenged trying to produce a blog post of sufficient quality each week to be worthy of publication.  I don’t know that I always reach the goal, but I am always grateful for the opportunity.

Let summer begin…


And the winner is…all of us! (Part III)

Is it a cop out if I borrow an article I have already used this week to address the exact same topic if it is the final Friday of the school year?  I vote, “No!”

In Part I (found here), I made transparent and explained the results of our first Annual Parent Survey.  In Part II (found here), I made transparent and contextualized one important slice of our annual standardized testing results.  Finally, what I had intended for exciting conclusion in Part III (and shared already with our parent body) was to make transparent our faculty and staff assignments for the 2011-2012 school year.  This will be the team charged with taking all the data from Parts I & II to make next year the best year yet!

It is hard to believe that we are in the final days of the school year, but here we are.  It is time to take a peek at the future.  We don’t want to wish away our summer, but we are so excited at how next year is shaping up!  (The lineup is 99% complete and we will continue to work hard to fill the final two part-time positions in the upcoming weeks.) We are confident that the foundation built this year through all the hard work and love of this year’s faculty and staff will be carried on to the next level by the next year’s.  And so, without further adieu, be excited!

Here is the 2011-2012 Faculty of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School:

This is the team prepared to take on the next step of our school’s journey.  We are committed to partnering with parents, providing differentiated instruction, Hebrew language immersion, fostering Jewish identification, 21st century technology, and “a floor, but no ceiling” for each student in our school.  We will enjoy the last days of this school year, relax and prepare over the summer, and look forward to working with you when it is time to come back to school.  Next year is going to be something special!







P.S.  If you are in town, please don’t miss our Middle School Graduation this Monday evening at 7:15 PM!

P.P.S.  Please don’t miss out on a variety of creative programs here at the Center for Shavuot, but particularly don’t miss our first “Who’s Left Standing at Sinai?” contest on the June 8th during morning services!  I’ve been watching the kids practice their verses and its anybody’s guess who will win!

P.P.P.S.  Congratulations to our Third Grade for their wonderful end-of-year video and presentation of “Jacksonville Reads”!  Twenty-first century learning in action!

P.P.P.P.S.  Congratulations to our Fifth Grade for their wonderful end-of-year project “Facebook Profiles of the American Revolution”!  Even more twenty-first century learning in action!

And the winner is…all of us! (Part II)

It was wonderful to hear the positive feedback from both parents AND teachers to the publication of the results from our First Annual Parent Survey (found here)!

Continuing with the theme of transparency, I want to now follow up and share results and ideas about how our school performed on its standardized testing.  (We take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS)).  I actually find the Wikipedia description easier to understand than the company’s own website summary.)  I began this conversation here during the time we were actually taking the tests.  I strongly encourage you to reread (or read for the first time) my philosophy on test-taking and how we planned on both sharing the tests with parents and utilizing the data in our decision-making.

We have already gone ahead and done that which we said we would – mail out to parents all test results which fully resembled the children who took them AND met privately with parents whose children’s results required expert contextualization.  All conversations we have had with parents about testing have been fruitful.  All the data has been tabulated, filed, and prepared for dissemination with next year’s faculty who look forward to utilizing it to help each student in our school reach their maximum potential.

I wasn’t prepared to show grade and school results – not because I was concerned we might not have done well (but if I don’t show them again next year, you’ll know why!  🙂 ) – but because I really do believe that individual growth is the most appropriate metric for our school to use.  However, after our 21st Century Learning Consultant, Siliva Tolisano, put together a few infographics about our results, one was so striking that I changed my mind.  Here’s why:

My thinking has been influenced by conversations I have been having with colleagues about the different challenges Jewish day schools often have from their secular private school (and/or magnet and/or charter and/or suburban public school) neighbors.  I sometimes think biggest difference comes down to a philosophy of admissions.  Most Jewish day schools attempt to cast the widest net possible, believing it is our mission to provide a Jewish day school education to all who may wish one.  We do not, often, restrict admission to a subset of the population who score X on an admissions test and we do not, often, adjust birthday cutoffs to maximize academic achievement. However, the schools who we are most often compared to in terms of academic achievement often do one or both.  Then, if you factor in whether or not you exempt special needs students from the testing and whether or not you explicitly teach to the test, you may have quite an uneven playing field to say the least.

To reframe and reset the discussion:

Jewish day schools have an inclusive admissions policy, but are expected to compete equally with elite private (and magnet and charter and suburban public) schools who have exclusive admissions policies (or homogeneous populations).

In light of all of that – if a Jewish day school with an inclusive admissions policy, a non-exempted special needs population, and a commitment to “not teach to test” – if that kind of school could demonstrate that it was achieving secular academic excellence on par with elite schools; schools who advertise as “grade ahead schools” and often use the birthday cutoff as a means to achieving it, well to me that would be news worth sharing.  And so…without further adieu:

The bottom line of this graphic is…each grade in the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School is operating at least a grade and a half ahead in core secular academics.  There are grades whose averages are significantly higher than that, but let the boldface sink in for a bit.  Too much time dedicated to Jewish Studies?  Nope – a high-quality Jewish Studies programs enhances secular academics.  Too much time dedicated to Skyping or Tweeting?  Nope – a 21st century learning paradigm not only impacts student motivation, but leads to higher student achievement.

I can sense the tone of triumphalism in my writing and, although I am extremely proud of our students and teachers for their achievements, I do not wish to sound boastful.  But with state of Jewish day school education being what it is, when there is good news to share…share it one must!  Yes, this is just one isolated case of one Jewish day school at one moment of time – our school has to continue to excel year after year in order for the data to take on statistical significance.  [And there are amazing Jewish day schools achieving excellence throughout North America – I am a zealot to the cause and freely admit it!]

I firmly believe that Jewish day schools with dual-curricula and 21st century pedagogy and philosophy produce unmatched excellence in secular academics.  Here in our school, we will have to prove it year after year, subject after subject, and student after student in order to live up to our mutually high expectations, but what an exciting challenge it shall be coming to school each day to tackle!

So…in Part I we discussed parents and in Part II we discussed students.  Coming next week in Part III?  The teachers.  Stay tuned!

And the winner is…all of us! (Part I)

This will be Part I of making sure we keep the transparency promises we made back at the beginning of this extraordinary year…first up: The Annual Parent Survey!

A couple of months ago, parents in our school had an opportunity to provide anonymous feedback through an online survey.  We anticipate this being a yearly occurrence and an important one at that.  Beyond the opportunities I have had to meet collectively and privately with families all throughout the year; beyond the admissions and exit interviews performed by our Admissions Director; beyond the feedback picked up at Parent-Teacher Conferences; even beyond all the fun things that get discussed in the parking lot – it is important to also offer a totally anonymous opportunity for parents to share their thoughts and assess the school.  I look forward making this a yearly event AND to begin to chart our results over time to even better assess our performance.

Parents were asked to fill out separate surveys for multiple children in the school and we received back responses from 55% of current students in the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  Without further ado…let’s begin!

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, responses are skewed towards the younger grades not only because that’s were most of our students are presently located, but also because of the enthusiasm newer families often bring (not that we’re not all enthusiastic!).  OK – so we know who took the survey…how did we do?!

Let’s first look at the BIG PICTURE:

That’s pretty great!  On scale of 1-10, our average score wound up being 7.7.  We’d love to be a 10 out of 10 for every parent in each facet of schooling, but this both tells us we are doing pretty well and that we have some room to grow.  Let’s dig deeper.  Next up…Communication.

When it comes to communication, we have pretty high marks altogether – with the highest marks coming in communication via electronic means and the lowest marks coming in providing opportunities for parents to be involved in student learning.  We look forward to new ideas for improving parent partnerships coming from this data.   Let’s move on and look at our Administration.

You should know that I am engaged in my own evaluative process – this data along with surveys from my teachers and colleagues as well as my own self-evaluation are being compiled as we speak.  I appreciate the high marks, but recognize that I still have a lot of room to grow as a school leader and the candor many of you provided in your open-ended responses will be a useful tool towards that end.  Although it is still a fairly high number (7.62) [Don’t be fooled by the X-axis!], I will work harder next year to ensure there is even greater confidence in our application of the student code of conduct.  And now most importantly…academics!

This first part is non-subject specific:

(Hopefully you can read it or you can blow it up if it is a tad small…)

Our highest marks in this area came in 21st century technology…this is no surprise with the amount of emphasis we put on it.  I was pleased by the high mark (7.77) for individualized attention.  One area of (relative) concern and something I expect to be much higher next year is teaching in different styles (6.98).  Differentiated instruction is a core philosophy of our program and I expect this number to rise and rise each year.

Next up!  General Studies:

Overall, we scored very well.  Where public perception is slightly lower, we find one of those happy confluences where our own internal assessment mirrors the parents.  Our lowest marks in General Studies came in Math (6.71) and Science (6.87). With a move to Singapore Math next year, we fully expect that number to climb.  We also intend to provide more regular Science Lab opportunities to children in the elementary school next year.  This should help in that area as well.

We will be revisiting General Studies academics in next week’s Part II…when I will be sharing how we did in our standardized testing this year and now to best understand the results.  (Spoiler Alert: We did great!)

Here are the results for Jewish Studies, Resources and Extracurricular activities:

We are thrilled with high marks for Jewish Studies and our wonderful PE, Music and Art departments!  Field trips and service learning scored excellently as well.  Our lowest mark was in Afterschool Activities (6.19).  We are hoping that two new programs we are launching next year – an Enhanced Kindergarten Program and a new partnership with the JCA (that’s right…stay tuned!) – will help to even better serve this population.

And so there you have it.  Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys.  In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses.  They added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  But please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern as we use this data to make enhancements and improvements headed into next year.  By the by, we are pleased with how well satisfied our parents are with how the school is going…but be assured, just like with everything else, we fully expect these numbers to be (say it with me!) just “a floor, but no ceiling”!